Introduction: After a major disaster in a developing country, the graphic media coverage of the dead and injured invariably leads to an influx of volunteering healthcare personnel to the disaster zone. Very few studies document the outcomes of the treatment rendered in this field setting, under compromised conditions. We revisited the rural victims of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake in an attempt to analyse their surgical outcome and the status of their physical/psychosocial rehabilitation, 2 years after the disaster.
Method: We traced displaced victims treated for earthquake-related injuries to their new homes. A community health worker interviewed patients with an oral questionnaire in the local language about injuries, the examining physician and first aid, orthopaedic implants, amputations, wounds, disability, deformity, residual pain, occupational and economic rehabilitation, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and perceptions of healthcare rendered.
Results: We located 133 of the 179 non-urban victims, from 11 villages. There were 10% missed injuries, 19% infection rate, restricted range of motion in 12%, non-union rate in 23% and reoperations in 30.5% patients. Fifty-one percent had resumed their previous occupation, but only 30% had recovered economically. Of 98% who had destroyed homes, 89% had their homes rebuilt. Residual sadness was the only significant PTSD symptom.
Conclusion: This trauma outcome study highlights the shortcomings of surgeons for disaster-related work. One-tenth of the injuries were missed, suggesting that field examination at the site of disaster was more difficult than in the comfort of the hospital emergency room. Further there were inappropriately timed, aggressive implant operations, short time commitments, a lack of follow-up and a high rate of reoperations contributing to subsequent morbidity. These pointed to a need for training in disaster medicine within the curriculum of surgical residency. On the brighter side, despite poor sterility, prolonged transport times and no prehospital care, the postoperative infection rate was lower than expected. This perhaps was due to use of potent antibiotics in a previously unexposed rural population. Good physiotherapy given in the temporary shelters, by the informal carers within the family and by voluntary groups, kept up a good range of motion and reduced the final disability. PTSD was marked 3–6 months after the event, but was minimal 2 years postquake. Sadness about the event was the only residual PTSD symptom. While there were varying perceptions of satisfactory outcome, we found good coping mechanisms in place. The simple village folks were largely happy to be alive and accepted the residual deformities and cosmetic blemishes as a “small price to pay”.